A Story and a Smile

Sam Granade was the tallest man I knew.

Sure, when you’re little, most everyone is tall. But Granddaddy was immensely tall. When he would pick me up the world would fall away from me and I was higher up even than when I was on my dad’s shoulders.

When I was young, he wasn’t my favorite of my grandparents. My grandmother, Missy Law, would get on the floor and play Safari with me, and make Witches’ Brew out of whatever juices and teas were in the refrigerator. My mom’s parents and my aunt Melanie, who was a teenager then, were relaxed, joking easily with each other. Granddaddy, though, seemed reserved, a man who knew what was right and planned on doing it. Moreover, he was an outdoorsman. I never really liked hunting and fishing, which were Granddaddy’s love. As much as he enjoyed turkey hunting (or, as it sounded in his south Alabamian accent, thick as a wool blanket, “toikey huntin'”), I’m surprised he didn’t disown me when I couldn’t sit still on our few hunting trips.

Our love of stories helped bridge that gap. Stories gushed out of Granddaddy like water from Moses’s rock. He would cock his head, his smile growing wide, and launch into his tale. He savored telling them, and his stern, no-nonsense demeanor would relax. One of my favorite memories of him is from a holiday shortly after Misty and I were married. We’d gathered at the beach like we did every year, and he turned to Misty and gravely began explaining how we did things at the beach. At one point he clasped his hands together and said, “And of course, as the newest member of the family, you’ll be expected to clean up after everyone,” and before he could even finish the sentence his laughter bubbled out of him.

As a preacher, he preached as Jesus did, through story and parable. But more than a preacher, he was a minister. He cared for people, and saw his calling to the ministry as a call to help others.

I didn’t get to know Granddaddy well until he and Missy Law started keeping Andrew and I once a year while my parents were out of town. During one of those visits, when I was ten or eleven, Granddaddy and I were playing one of those games that aren’t really games, but an excuse to “foster communications” and bore young children. At one point we had to talk about a time when we’d felt scared.

I don’t remember what I said. I do remember Granddaddy pausing before quietly describing his first jump as a paratrooper into the waiting darkness. I later learned that he’d volunteered for the Army. Since he was an ordained minister still in seminary, he wouldn’t have been drafted, but felt compelled to volunteer. He also volunteered for jump school: as the Army pointed out to him, they couldn’t assign him to the paratroopers, but they could assign him to glider training. Granddaddy used to laugh and say that the other members of the 13th Airborne Division would make him jump first. That way, if he made it, surely the rest of them would, too.

As I grew up and began driving the family around Montgomery, I also learned of his love of “little jogs”. He just knew that the simplest route was not the quickest, especially if it involved main streets. He would say, “Here, we’ll take this little jog and avoid the Southern Bypass” and send me on a bewildering series of turns.

Time pulls on us all, and one day I realized that I had grown taller and Granddaddy had grown more stooped. He shuffled when he walked, and he complained of how he couldn’t hunt or fish or preach any more on account of doctor’s orders. We thought he had decided he was old. What we didn’t know was that he had dementia.

His people skills were formidable, and he used them to cover for as long as he could. We had no idea his memory was like the sun on a cloudy day, appearing and disappearing. It wasn’t until we were moving him and Missy Law into the assisted living community that I realized how serious his dementia was. Misty, mom and dad were moving furniture into their rooms. Missy Law and Granddaddy stayed in one of the common areas with me and Eli. Eli was one, so I spent a lot of my time corralling him and keeping him from chewing on the furniture. During one of our circuits around the room, I overheard Granddaddy say, “Who is that young man with that boy?”

Dementia is a terrible disease. It took the Granddaddy I knew and loved and spirited away bits of him. He went from the open wing of the assisted living facility to the controlled access ward, then to a true nursing home. The wellspring of his stories ran dry, and he spent his time nodding amiably but uncomprehendingly at most of the conversations around him.

The disease didn’t take his smile, though. On occasion the clouds would part and Granddaddy would return to us, and his smile was the herald of those occasions. The last time I saw him was after Thanksgiving. We had four generations of Sams in the same room: him, my dad, my brother, and his son. Of the four, only Granddaddy and my nephew are called Sam. We re-introduced ourselves to him, and Andrew hoisted his son up. “And this is Sam,” he said, and Granddaddy nodded. Then he realized what Andrew had said and smiled, saying, “Oh, you named him for me!”

I don’t carry his name like so many members of the family do, but I have my own gifts from him. A King James Bible he used in his preaching. The railroad pocket watch with which he timed his sermons. His stories of being one of six Granade brothers and cousins in a single generation who became ministers.

At his memorial service, some three hundred people filled Stakley Chapel at First Baptist Church of Montgomery, people he’d ministered to and befriended. Everyone had their favorite stories of Brother Sam.

Me, I think of a man brave enough to throw himself into the air because he knew it was the right thing to do. He falls through darkness, looking back only to make sure those following him are okay.

A picture of Granddaddy
Samuel Andrew Granade